Sacred Trees of the Americas: Linden/Basswood

Linden is always a joy to find anywhere you go. A tree with a gentle spirit and incredibly useful offerings, the Linden is there for you.  I remember meeting Linden for the first time when I was young with my grandfather.  He shared that this was a “giving tree” with medicine, food, and more all within the same tree.  We sat and talked under this lovely tree and even years after that tree is no more, I still return to that spot to reflect on his teachings about the Linden.  The Linden species (Tilia spp.) includes 30 species of shrubs and bushes that can be found throughout the temperate Northern Hemisphere.  Lindens are also known as Basswood, WhiteWood, Spoonwood, or Lime Tree and here in Northern Appalachia, the “Basswood” and “Linden” names are used fairly interchangeably.

Close up of the linden leaves and seed pods (this is in mid June, so after the Linden flowered for the year)
Close up of the linden leaves and seed pods (this is in mid June, so after the Linden flowered for the year)

This post is part of my Sacred Trees of the Americas series–this series has been expanded and released in my book The Magical Compendium of  Eastern North American Trees which is the companion book to the TreeLore Oracle (which we released earlier this year). To purchase both, you can visit my etsy shop here.   In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast. For my methods using ecology, the doctrine of signatures, and human uses, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Tulip Poplar, Dogwood, Spruce, Spicebush, Rhododendron, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, seeking the grandmother trees, tree relationships, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

So with all of that, let’s go learn some more about the lovely Linden tree!

Linden: Ecology

Tilia Americana, known as the American Linden or American Basswood tree, has a native range spanning from Tennessee to Maine, across Ontario, and into the edges of Montana through Oklahoma—quite far-ranging indeed. The Linden is most often found in deciduous forests along with sugar maples and prefers a higher PH. The bark is distinct, either light gray or brown with thin fissures running up and down. The leaves are asymmetrical and heart-shaped; they look like a lopsided heart where one part of the leaf is larger than the other. The leaves are 6-10” long and are alternatively ranged on the branch. The leaves are shiny on top and duller underneath, and when the tree blows in the wind, you can often see them twisting and shimmering in the breeze. The leaves produce a nutrient-rich leaf litter which is a favorite of gardeners and permaculturists for use in their gardens.

The Linden Eco-Printed card from the TreeLore Oracle
The Linden Eco-Printed card from the TreeLore Oracle

Most people can identify linden due to the flowers—each one drops from a yellow-white bract (looking like a single leaf) with 6-20 small white flowers with five symmetrically arranged petals. The flowers are distinct not only in the beautiful display and aroma but also because they require exactly 14 hours and 30 minutes days to form, thus, Lindens only grow north of the 35th parallel in latitude in North America. Unlike most trees that bloom later the further north you go, Linden blooms the opposite—they bloom earliest at the top of their range in Ontario and bloom into mid-to-late June at the southern end of their range, based on the available daylight. The Linden flowers turn to seeds, which can stay present on the Linden for midwinter.

Linden is often associated with both domestic and wild honey bees—bees are the primary pollinators of Linden.  Linden is sometimes known as a “humming tree” due to the number of insects she draws while in flower. Linden flowers are fragrant and produce a beautifully rich and delicious honey, in which a single tree in one season can attract tens of thousands of bees and insects. As John Eastman notes in Book of Forest and Thicket, Linden produces some of the finest honey in North America. In the wild, hollow Linden trees were a common place for wild bee colonies to be found. The white wood of the linden tree is also made into beehive frames.

Seed pods are often eaten by a variety of animals including mice, squirrels, and chipmunks.  Rabbits and voles prefer the bark of young linden trees, which can require protection from them killing the trees. The Bucculatrix Improvisa, a golden brown moth, only feeds on the trees in the Tilia species, and then the moth creates a yellow cocoon on the underside of the leaf, and overwinters until spring.

Linden trees have staying power. Even if a Linden is cut down, like the American Hazelnut, she can spring forth from her stump and regenerate.  Linden grows extremely deep taproots and also has a wide lateral root structure—this means a Linden is almost never blown down but stays firm.

While Linden is a desirable tree, it is extremely difficult to propagate from seed (only 30% of the seeds are viable and due to a hard seed coating, they can take 2-3 years to germinate).  Thus, Lindens are often propagated through cuttings and grafting, which suggests that humans may have been at least partially responsible for the spread of these trees well before colonial times.

Human Uses: Wood and Fiber

The kind of place I find many Lindens in the Allegheny Mountains--along streams good for kayaking!
The kind of place I find many Lindens in the Allegheny Mountains–along streams good for kayaking!

Linden wood is white, fine-grained, and fairly soft. It is a common wood for use in woodburning and carving; often when you visit a hobby store and purchase blocks of carving wood or wood for burning, it is linden (sometimes labeled as Basswood or White-wood). As mentioned above, this beautiful wood is also a very traditional wood for making honey frames as well as boxes and wagon boxes. Linden is often also used for the body of electric guitars (along with aspen). But due to its soft nature, most of its commercial uses are for carving and woodburning.

The term “basswood” is derived from the cambium (inner bark) which is an excellent source of “bast” or fiber. Cordage from Linden trees was found at the Glacial Kame site in Canada (cordage with copper beads) and the Ohio Hopewell site (textiles), suggesting that Indigenous Americans had an extremely longstanding relationship with this useful tree, which traditionally would be harvested in the spring when the sap was flowing and the cambium was easy to slip off of the tree. The inner fiber of Linden is one of the best trees in North America for producing ropes, cordage, nets, mats, textiles, and other applications where a pliable inner bark was needed.  John Smith reports that native Americans living in Virginia would spin and braid the fibers to make threads that were used for nets, arrow shafts, housing, apparel, and for fishing gear. The Ojibwe would use it to lash together wigwams and medicine lodges. The Algonquin peoples were known to use Linden to weave straw mats that were used as a roof for shelters.  The Menomeni used it so extensively that H. Smith reports that balls of the twine were kept in every household. Many of these applications continued into colonial America, and are kept alive today in the modern bushcraft and earth skills communities.

Finally, Linden has a very large amount of foliage and can produce a very deep shade when full grown; due to this and their bee-attracting capabilities, they are traditionally planted on the windward side of orchards to help break the wind and help attract insect pollinators.

Linden flowers have a range of medicinal and edible uses both contemporarily and traditionally. The flowers can be enjoyed fresh or distilled and turned into both an essential oil and a perfume. They have a very delicate almost honey smell that is just wonderful for this use, when distilled the sweetness also is complimented by a slightly spicy flavor. Linden seed pods (after the flowers are done blooming) can be pressed for oil in large quantities.

Linden leaves are edible and have long been enjoyed by both human and livestock.  As with other edible tree species (such as Maple), the leaves are best when they are young and tender.  You can eat them later in the season, but they get tougher as they get older.  Linden leaves were used as a cooking aid by the Iroquois, as reported by Charlotte Erichsen-Brown: the Iroquois used cornmeal and boiled pumpkin and mixed with berries (blackberry or huckleberry).  They would line the entire pan with Linden leaves and bake this into a bread.

A Linden flower tree is certainly a wonderful treat on a hot summer day and has a range of medicinal effects.

Human Uses: Herbalism

Linden leaf ecoprint
Linden leaf ecoprint

Traditional indigenous uses of Linden are for a range of issues including using the flowers for epilepsy, mouth sores, diarrhea, swelling, fevers, coughs, gastrointestinal issues, and more. The root of the Linden was used for burns by the Illinois-Miami. Linden flowers are commonly used in a medicinal tea for a variety of uses.

Following with the “bast” uses of the tree are medicinal applications: the Algonquin also used the inner bark in thin strands as a suture to sew up wounds. The Mohawk created a linden tea with branches from Linden and Staghorn sumac that was prepared in a special way for aiding childbirth, and the Iroquois also used the cambium as an emergency wound bandage.
Linden flowers are understood to be very gentle medicine, able to be used with children, nursing women, and those who are quite sick.  Its uses in traditional western herbalism include being used as a demulcent, relaxant, nervine, diaphoretic (regulating fever) and diuretic (helps support healthy kidney function and flush the body).  It is predominantly used as a tea, often in combination with other medicine.  For use as a nervine and relaxant, it can also be used in a bath for this purpose.  It also works as a fantastic headache medicine, particularly useful on tension headaches. It can also be used to soothe gastric issues and also can be used to help support a fever (diaphoretic action).

Biomedical research has demonstrated that Linden flower tea has sedative effects in mice, which can aid in the increase of sleep[1]. This is consistent with longstanding traditional uses of Linden flowers.

Craft: Linden Cordage

Learning how to make a bit of your own cordage is a very useful activity and has a range of both mundane and magical uses. You can use a linden cordage for creating a special necklace, for ritual workings where you bind or hold something fast, or even for a handfasting where you want to bring two people together as one.

I recommend that you use a downed branch of Linden or one that requires to be pruned, which in an area where they are common, is not too difficult to find. The best cordage branches are those that have few knots and are fairly straight. Spring is the traditional time to harvest material for cordage and is by far the easiest to process, but you can create it anytime you have access to the material

Begin by stripping the bark from your branches (a small knife is very effective for this). The bark has two layers, the outer and inner layer, and you will want to separate these layers and avoid having any dark outer bark left on your inner fiber. If the material has dried out, it is useful to soak it (up to a day or more) and then try to separate it. Your goal is to create strips of the thin, inner green bark—the longer the strip, the bigger. For thin cordage, as would be appropriate for a necklace, you want to split the cambium into small strips about ¼ to 1/6” each.  The more consistent the size, the more consistent your cordage will be. Next, “buff” the strips to soften them, this is usually done by rubbing them between your hands or with your hand on your leg (wearing pants) for a time until the fibers loosen and get softer. The fibers will be ready to spin when they are pliable.

To create your cordage, you will split a long fiber in half and start to twist it at the center of the fiber. Eventually, a little kink in the fiber will form—grab this kink in your non-dominant hand. Twist one of the fibers away from you, then move that fiber in the opposite direction that you twisted (toward you) and bring it over the second fiber. Now, twist the second fiber away from you, and move the first fiber back toward you. The key is that you will twist the individual fibers in one direction and twist the fibers together in the opposite—this creates a cord. As you twist, you will run out of fiber—2” before you do so, add a new fiber that you have prepared and twist the first into the second and just keep going. While this may sound complicated, once you get the hang of the two different twists, you can do this nearly effortlessly.

Once you’ve made your homemade cordage, consider using it to string a pendant (such as one of the charms listed in this book) or using it for some other magical purpose. Any time you want to hold energy or bind something would be a very appropriate use of Linden.

Magical and Divination Uses of Linden

Binding: As Linden’s extensive use for creating ropes, cordage, and other materials that bind, Linden offers this energy energetically. You can use Linden to hold something fast to you, to tie something together, or to bind something that is in need of binding. All of these uses still require human action to bring the binding or cordage together.

Alchemy: The Linden’s deep association with bees, who are nature’s alchemists and its connection with honey signify a deeper connection with alchemy and transformation.  Linden ha many ways in which it can be transformed: into cordage, food, medicine, honey, drink, or carvings, and all of these are rooted in the tree’s innate qualities.

Air:  Linden’s association as a “humming tree”, the way its leaves blow and shine in the breeze, the yellow of its flowers, and the flower growth habit all speak to the close association of this tree with the element of air. If you are doing any workings that focus on air and air magic, Linden is an excellent tree to work with.

[1] Aguirre-Hernández, E., Martínez, A. L., González-Trujano, M. E., Moreno, J., Vibrans, H., & Soto-Hernández, M. (2007). Pharmacological evaluation of the anxiolytic and sedative effects of Tilia americana L. var. mexicana in mice. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 109(1), 140–145. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2006.07.017

 

Dana O'Driscoll

Dana O’Driscoll has been an animist druid for over 15 years, and currently serves as Grand Archdruid in the Ancient Order of Druids in America. She is a druid-grade member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids and is the OBOD’s 2018 Mount Haemus Scholar. She is the author of Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Spiritual Practice, and is a writing professor with extensive journaling experience. Dana is a certified permaculture designer and permaculture teacher who teaches sustainable living courses and wild food foraging. Dana lives at a 5-acre homestead in rural western Pennsylvania with her partner and a host of feathered and furred friends. She writes at the Druids Garden blog and is on Instagram as @druidsgardenart.

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3 Comments

  1. Dana, I have followed all the links and don’t seem to find a way to order The oracle deck and companion book. Is it available? Thanks.

    1. Yes! Thank you for asking. I didn’t realize that I hadn’t updated the links on the page. I updated the link and added one in this post. Here’s a direct link to my esty shop: https://www.etsy.com/shop/TheDruidsGardenLLC

  2. I am interested to cross reference these trees with Lime trees in the UK. There’s a stand of limes beyond my home, to the East, which is perfect for the link you make to the element of air. I absolutely love these trees and feel protected by their presence. I feel I commune with them every day, but in a very gentle way. Their changes are like my first reference point for observing the wheel of the year turning.

    One day I was roused by the sound of chainsaws coming from the limes, and I really thought theses trees were being taken out from the top down, I felt so distraught and helpless, and I was not exaggerating when I said to my husband I would actually want to move house if this happened. Thankfully the tree surgeons stopped at a pollarding. I am sad to think, reading what you say about the wood, that the wood from these trees was probably just chipped. If I’m still living here next time it’s done, I shall go and ask for some.

    A couple have seeded in my garden and I’m delighted- it already felt like a privilege and that feeling is amplified by what you say about the seeds being hard to propagate.

    Thank you for the deeper insight into my neighbours and friends!

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